VCU Arts Grads Sweet on the Big Apple

The song says if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.


For decades New York City has been a beacon for artists, musicians and writers.

Some have seen it as a creative Everest, the ultimate test of determination and talent. To others it’s a boot camp, a resume booster or a stocked pond of professional connections that doesn’t exist anywhere else.


Whatever it is, it’s not easy.


The competition is fierce, and the cost of living can sink you before you even get started. Forging a career is a constant struggle between survival and self-expression.


With all this in mind, we wondered why artists still go. If New York City is such a meat grinder, why do graduates still head north with portfolios full of hopes and dreams?


We asked a group of alumni from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts who are living and working in Brooklyn and Manhattan – five people stuck in that tug of war between survival and success.


We found that part of the lure is the challenge of doing more with less: less money, less space and less time. But equally appealing is the promise of more: more opportunities, more connections and more people with money to spend.


Each grad had his own reason for coming to the city. Each had stories to tell. But all share the same reason for staying: It’s New York City.


After all, very few places feel like the center of the world. And even fewer actually are.



The Firestarter


Eric Sto and Kelie Bowman wanted beer.


They wanted a drink to celebrate the new gallery space they had just rented. It felt like a done deal. It deserved an official clink of the bottles.


Their walk to a nearby deli took 10 minutes. When they got back, Bowman’s house was engulfed in flames. All they could do was watch it burn.


While the couple was homeless, the gallery deal fell through. “It was definitely an inspiration,” Sto said. “It was like, ‘We’ve got to do this now.’ “


The pair soon found a better space in a better location. They moved in, spent two months renovating and finally opened the doors.


They dubbed the new space Cinders Gallery.


The tiny storefront gallery sits on Havermayer Street, just a few blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge. The main space is a modest, 300- square-foot rectangle with a concrete floor. Toward the rear is a smaller room, a hip art emporium packed with books, T-shirts and one- of-kind creations.


Among those one-of-a-kind creations is the co-owner himself. Even among New York City’s endless cavalcade of characters, Sto stands out.


It could be his ‘do, a spiky explosion of hair that flops and sways with every nod. But more likely it’s that the 27-year-old has become an enthusiastic champion of Brooklyn’s underground art scene.

Sto came to New York in December 2000.


A friend invited him, told Sto he’d love it here. Sto had just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. His friend had a spare couch. He figured he’d check it out. He checked it out and he loved it.


He loved it enough to give up his $200-a-month house in Richmond for a $400 box in his friend’s kitchen. There were no spare bedrooms, so Sto built one out of cardboard and lived next to the stove for eight months.


His living situation is less “improvised” today, but housing is still at the top of his mind.


“The real killer is real estate,” Sto said. “It’s so bloated that all your earnings go for your rent.”


Sto hasn’t had a regular job in four years. He works a handful of freelance jobs every month, including production work on films. He helps run Cinders but says he doesn’t earn any money from it.


When the gallery makes a dollar, it almost always goes to pay the rent.


“There’s enough foot traffic to keep us alive,” he said.


That traffic comes courtesy of a neighborhood art boom that spawned more than 30 venues for contemporary work. In the last five years, Williamsburg has taken its place alongside Manhattan art meccas like Chelsea and SoHo as a destination for serious browsers.


And while the more slick and polished galleries lure the curious to Brooklyn, Sto doesn’t fret the competition. He’s confident that Cinders has carved itself a grittier, more grassroots niche.


“I had set up a lot of art shows in little warehouses,” Sto said. “I wanted a permanent space.”


At Cinders, Sto managed to keep much of the ambition and creativity of those “anything goes” warehouse shows. A new exhibit opens every five weeks, with smaller events scheduled in between.

It’s a very rough-edged, do-it-yourself kind of space. A place where the wilder the idea is, the wider Sto’s smile spreads.


As a result, Cinders has become home to a generation of under-40 artists who do more than just paint, draw and sculpt. They make books, zines, T-shirts and toys. They play and record music, own businesses and run Web sites.


“There are a lot of folks in that age group who have a similar aesthetic,” Sto said. “So many people here are in tune with each other.”


Sometimes that community comes together for group shows at Cinders.


During last summer’s “Porch Show,” artists dressed the gallery like a suburban backyard, complete with wooden porch and an AstroTurf lawn. This past December, “The Family Room” show transformed the gallery into a living room with a couch, a television and a faux fireplace.


“We’re less like a gallery and more like a neighborhood friend,” Sto said.


That authenticity is important to Sto. He clings to it even when offered big money to capitalize on his alt-culture image. Adidas came knocking. Apple showed up too, suggesting that he’d be a perfect dancing silhouette for one of its iPod commercials.


Sto said “no thanks” to both.


“It’s selling your soul,” he said.


But while he won’t sell out willingly, his hand may be forced. Williamsburg has caught the eye of developers. And longtime residents, along with recent transplants, are feeling the not-so- subtle squeeze.


Sto said lots of his friends live and work in large “art buildings.” Recently, everyone who had an apartment and studio in one big building around the corner was kicked out.


“It’s definitely a reality,” Sto said. “If all my friends are gone, if we don’t have our community – it’s going to be hard to stay.”



Man in Motion


For years, Jason Akira Somma taught his body to flip, twist and flail as an instrument of self-expression. Two months ago, he got the chance to use it for self-defense.


It was around 8 a.m. when a man came at Somma with a knife. He grabbed the guy’s arm and they tussled a bit before the attacker ran off. Somma came out of the deal with a long scratch on his face, a strained wrist and a wickedly cool drinking story.


Though frightening and weird, the incident did nothing to sour Somma on life in the Big Apple.


“New York is the only option,” he said. “It has the most funding and the largest audiences.”


The dancer-choreographer-filmmaker-photographer came to New York after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography in 2002. Since arriving, he’s survived on a steady diet of multi-tasking.


When he’s not performing with groups such as Chris Elam Misnomer Dance Theater or Amanda Loulaki and Short Mean Lady, he’s choreographing, shooting and performing in original dance videos. When he isn’t sending his film work to contests and festivals, he’s photographing some of New York’s finest dancers.


And when he isn’t doing any of the above, he’s waiting tables at Yaffa Cafe in the East Village.

But what Somma really wants to do is get into the galleries. He wants to find a way to sell his performances as art object.


“That’s the tricky thing about dance,” he said. “It’s very separate from the visual art world.”

For Somma, film and video are the way to bring the two together. He’s directed and starred in two music videos for former Richmond musician Lauren Hoffman. And his dance-themed video for the One Ring Zero song “Afrodo” was broadcast on cable’s Sundance Channel.



The Robot Guy


If you’re looking for a method to Nick Kuszyk’s madness, here it is: The man paints robots.

He paints them over and over and over again. He hasn’t stopped, won’t stop and it’s very likely that he’ll never stop.


“I’m a beserker,” Kuszyk said.


It’s an obsession that seems to be working out well.


Shortly after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in 2002, Kuszyk was awarded a $2,000 Virginia Museum Fellowship. In 2005, he was the recipient of a Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts.


But the 28-year-old doesn’t seem much impressed with awards, success or even himself.


“I was making garbage down there [in Richmond],” he said. “But now it’s refined garbage.”


In 2005, Kuszyk moved to New York City after the death of a friend. He came to help the outdoor advertising company that his friend had co-founded. He came to pitch in, do whatever work he could.


When that work was done, it was back to the robots – those portly gray buckets of bolts that always seem to be falling apart. He painted them on canvas, wood and nearly anything else that would hold paint.


Most days Kuszyk would sell the paintings on the street in SoHo. But one day he walked into Williamsburg’s McCaig-Welles Gallery with a full portfolio. He asked owner Melissa McCaig-Welles if she liked robots. She did.


She especially liked Kuszyk’s robots, bought some of his work right there and offered him a solo show. Kuszyk’s show last summer at McCaig-Welles featured more than 340 paintings, most priced less than $50. According to the gallery, the show was a near sellout.


The works varied in size, color and price. But the subject never changed: fat-bodied bots floating in colored squares. In some paintings, they were alone. In others, they were stacked like firewood, piled like junk or scattered like leaves in the wind.


Their simplicity begs you to look deeper in search of some hidden revelation. Do the robots represent humanity’s fragile spirit? Our malfunctioning emotions?


Kuszyk couldn’t care less. He just likes to paint robots . . . over and over and over again.


Ask him what he likes about being an artist in New York City, and he’ll tell you, “bigger, better, more” and “hotter, sweeter, cooler.” Introspection is not his strong suit.


He’d rather talk about high-stakes pingpong tournaments. He’d rather tell you about how his roommate killed a rat in the sink with a ballpoint pen and a fork. And there’s always the subject of the little old man on the sidewalk who called him “Sweetie.”


Kuszyk seems to be the same man he was in Richmond. He’s still a little obnoxious, a bit outrageous and never willing to take himself, or life, too seriously.


The only difference now? Life in New York is infinitely more amusing.


Today, Kuszyk said, he is supporting himself with his art. He does paintings, T-shirts and the occasional mural. And talks are under way with some New York publishers about the possibility of working on children’s books.


So how exactly would a wisecracking, robot-painting, self- described “beserker” define success?


“I’m stoked,” he said. “I’m doing it.”



Divine Intervention


George Ferrandi’s small studio is packed with holy casualties – one burnt Mary, a cracked Jesus and some minor saints with peeling paint. This is where they wait for much-needed repair, bundled in moving quilts and wrapped in plastic.


Ferrandi’s Grand Street workshop – aka Saints Alive! – is a sort of emergency room for religious statuary. New York churches send their injured sculptures to the artist. She heals them and sends them back.


On warm days, the work spills out onto the sidewalk. Ferrandi said that when the statues are set outside, people stop to touch them. Sometimes they steal a kiss. On cold days in the winter, they ask her to bring the icons indoors.


Ferrandi moved to New York two days before the World Trade Center attacks. In the aftermath of 9/11, she wanted to find work that had meaning.


Her family restored churches in Baltimore, so she opened the Brooklyn phone book and called a religious goods dealer. Ferrandi’s family business was mostly architectural and structural work, but she was more interested in broken statues.


The man on the phone made her a deal, and a very unique day job was born.


When she’s not mending Jesus, Ferrandi works on her own art. Her studio is home to oversize bunny heads, tiny animals carved from Ivory soap and paintings of sad-sack superheroes in their underwear. The VCU sculpture grad shares 2,500 square feet of apartment and studio space with her boyfriend – fellow sculptor and VCU alum David McQueen – and another roommate.


“We have a ton of space by New York standards,” McQueen said.


Even so, neither artist is going to host a dance recital in his studio anytime soon. The work space is crowded. If you want room to walk, shelves to the ceiling are a necessity.


But both see the cramped quarters as a fair trade for the power of the city.


“When you do something here, if it gets any attention it’s part of a larger dialogue,” Ferrandi said. “The world is part of the conversation.”


When her show is reviewed in The New York Times, her friends and relatives in Gainesville, Fla., get to read about it.


“New York functions like the Internet – there is such a concentration of people,” McQueen said.

“There are few cities in the world where you can immerse yourself in as large an art community.”


Immersion in the larger community often means connecting to a smaller community. Both McQueen and Ferrandi show work at the nearby Cinders Gallery. They both do what they can to support other artists.


Sometimes that’s as simple as just showing up for an opening.


“It’s good to have people you can count on,” McQueen said. “To not have anyone show up in this city makes you feel like the biggest loser in the world.”


Building a name in New York might be the ultimate goal for an artist, but you need to survive long enough to succeed. Most people Ferrandi and McQueen know have two jobs. She does her church work. He tends bar and waits tables.


“It takes a lot of energy,” McQueen said. “But you can feel that energy. It gives you motivation.”


And you’ll need that motivation because it seems that even the simplest tasks in New York take twice as much time and patience.


“I miss being able to get more than one thing done every day,” McQueen said.


Running errands usually means heading into the mass confusion of Manhattan.


“Take going to the hardware store,” Ferrandi said. “If you don’t have a car, you have to borrow one.

Traffic takes an hour, and then there are 40 people at every register.”


But again, as much as the negatives leave non-New Yorkers scratching their heads, Ferrandi and McQueen are happy exactly where they are.


“Walking down the street, you are part of this enormous history. You’re not just witnessing it but living it,” Ferrandi said. “I can’t imagine not wanting to be here.”


Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 4, 2006

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